Unlike their government employee peers, Metro Nashville City Council members receive special treatment when it comes to health benefits. If they serve the two-term limit in full, they are eligible to receive lifetime health benefits on the taxpayer’s dime. All other Metro Nashville employees must work 20 years before earning similar lifetime benefits. These lifetime benefits reportedly cost taxpayers over $800,000 annually, which is projected to reach over $1.2 million by 2024.
Council member Tonya Hancock proposed BL2020-387 to change that rule in August. Hancock argued the bill was a step toward balancing the city budget and, in turn, lower property taxes. The measure would cut back on the 75 percent government-subsidized lifetime insurance for Metro council members. Hancock noted that a 2014 study discovered that no other peer cities offer retiree medical coverage for their council members. She bolstered her argument for the bill by noting that last year’s largest-ever property tax increase and over $4 billion debt with depleted reserves were further signs that the lifetime benefits were unwise spending of taxpayer money.
The proposal’s five co-sponsors were members Erin Evans, Russ Bradford, Freddie O’Connell, John Rutherford, and Angie Henderson. An attached amendment requested to extend grandfathering of the bill to 2027, as opposed to 2023.
Last year, Vice Mayor Jim Shulman created a Special Committee on Council Benefits with seven citizen members and eight council members. After three months of meetings, the committee recommended Hancock’s proposed cutbacks unanimously, 9-0 with one abstaining vote. The committee also issued several recommendations. These featured different options for members leaving the council: a one-time, two-year 25 percent health benefit; a one-time, two-year 50 percent health benefit; or benefits extending for up to 15 years or until age 65.
This isn’t the first time that council members have sought to change the lifetime benefits rule. In 2017, the council deferred a similar proposal to reduce the lifetime benefits.
In an interview with The Tennessee Star, Hancock explained that this proposal reflects their constituents’ desires.
“A lot of the argument [against cutting the benefits] is that this is really a full-time job, not a part-time job, that we don’t have enough staff support. My argument is, just to answer the constituent demands, that this is an excessive benefit,” explained Hancock. “I voted for the increase of taxes because I wanted to fully fund the schools, fully replenish our reserves, and to avoid a state takeover. [With this bill,] I want to show citizens that I’m taking this issue seriously. It’s the most pointed issue that all constituents are agreeing on. [This bill] shows we’re thinking of the right thing.”
The proposal first occurred to Hancock after virtual meetings last spring, around the time the council voted to instill the tax increase.
“[Then-Budget and Finance Chair] Bob Mendes talked about the history of where we are and the problems with the state comptroller,” stated Hancock. “He said we’ve trimmed most of the fat, most of the meat, and we don’t need to cut into the bone. However, there is one thing we haven’t trimmed that would be considered fat, and that is the council health insurance.”
Hancock explained that the council refused to cut back on its own benefits in 2012, even as it cut back on all other Metro employees’ benefits. Following the 2014 study, she noted that the council still opted not to cut back on its benefits or award itself the $8,000 salary raise. That changed in 2017, when the council agreed to the salary raise but not to the benefits cut.
Even this latest attempt to address the lifetime benefits has faced significant challenges. Hancock shared that she’d had to use Rule Eight to overcome an attempt to kill the bill by the Budget and Finance Committee. Her efforts received support, but she stated that this doesn’t necessarily mean that the bill will pass.
“I can’t count on all 20 people to support it – they wanted to allow for the process of democracy to occur, rather than a small committee who voted against it,” explained Hancock.
Metro Nashville citizens interested in expressing their support or opposition of the bill may contact their council representative. The bill is up for second reading during Tuesday’s meeting at 6:30 p.m. CST.
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